One warm Saturday afternoon last month in a ballroom in the convention center in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, a local business leader introduced Cory Booker as a man “who may be our next president.” Booker, the tall, solidly built former mayor of Newark, the current junior senator from New Jersey and somebody people have been pointing to as a potential occupant of the Oval Office for going on half his life by now, rose from the dais, enveloped the space behind the lectern and proceeded to unleash an hourlong stem-winder. The attendees at the state NAACP convention were a friendly, expectant audience, and Booker is good at this part of being a politician—voluble and excitable but compelling to the point of kinetic, gesturing with his hands, widening his eyes, planting and replanting his well-worn loafers and intermittently using a white handkerchief to wick the sweat from the top of his shiny bald head. The people in Raleigh were rapt. They laughed when he wanted them to laugh. They hushed when he wanted them to hush. They were near tears when he wanted them to be near tears. And they responded throughout with knowing nods and church-like murmurs of assent. Given the buoyant vibe, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that what Booker was saying was highly unusual. At this moment of extreme political discord, it was even quite radical. The crux of his message was the importance of love.
“Patriotism—let’s get to the root of the word—means love of country. And you cannot love your country if you don’t love your countrymen and women,” Booker told them.
“Love says everybody has worth and has dignity. It’s about looking at someone and … understanding that my destiny is interwoven with your destiny,” he continued.
“You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people.”
And toward the end of his speech, Booker arrived at the nub. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “I’ve given an entire speech, and I haven’t mentioned the name of the president of the United States.” He still didn’t. “And you know why? Because it’s not about him.” His voice rose. “It’s about us!”
The people clapped and cheered.
“We’ve got all the power we need!”
“We do!” somebody shouted from the crowd.
“Don’t be one of those people I catch calling our president nasty names,” Booker said.
“I’m serious. How can you think that you’re going to beat darkness by stealing darkness? If Nelson Mandela can love his jailers, if Martin Luther King can love Bull Connor—we’ve got to be people of love!”
They cheered again.
Booker over the years has talked a lot about love. “Consistent, unyielding love.” “An unbelievable amount of love.” “Crazy love … unreasonable, irrational, impractical love.” And for the better part of this decade, Booker has landed frequently on a particular phrase—the “conspiracy of love.” It’s a phrase he employs with an almost religious fervor—a combination of a guiding-light mantra and a permanent political slogan. He uses it to tell his story, from the suburbs of New York City to Stanford to Oxford to Yale. He uses it to tell the story of his family, from the poor, segregated South to the upwardly mobile comfort of the business and intellectual elite. And Booker uses it to tell the story of a country that has overcome its anguished, divided past by nurturing the bonds between white and black instead of stoking the dissension. Since at least 2011, he has used the phrase on panels and podcasts, in talks to credit union executives and furniture bosses, in campus lectures and at college commencements. He used it last year as an energetic surrogate and short-listed vice presidential possibility for Hillary Clinton. In his recently published book, called United, it’s the title of the first chapter.
For some, though—including some members of his own staff—the repetition can elicit snickers and sighs. “In some circles,” Patrick Murray, a pollster at New Jersey’s Monmouth University, told me, “he’s known as Senator Conspiracy of Love.” And to those less loyal, it can trigger the kind of criticism that has tracked Booker throughout his 20-year political career—that he’s too cute, too corny or too clever, that he seems polished to the point of performative, that he’s more interested in soaring oratory than the relative drudgery of governance and legislation. “Long on vision, short on granularity,” as the former head of the Newark Alliance once said.
But as saccharine or contrived as it might sound to some, those who know Booker the best insist it is nevertheless him. “It’s something that is really genuine and authentic to who he is as a person and how he views the world,” said Mo Butler, a former chief of staff. “It’s in his DNA,” Booker’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. David Jefferson of Newark’s Metropolitan Baptist Church, added. And so, if Booker runs for president in 2020—and he told me, for the record, it would be “irresponsible” to say at this time whether he will or he won’t—it’s hard to imagine that it would happen without millions of people beyond New Jersey and Washington, D.C., hearing him talk about love, and about the “conspiracy of love.”